Access to mental health and psychosocial support services remains unequal for children and adolescents in Africa, warn UNICEF & WHO – World



On World Mental Health Day, the agencies re-commit to their joint 10-year agenda to support the mental health and psychological well-being of children and adolescents across the continent.

BRAZZAVILLE / NAIROBI / DAKAR, October 10, 2021 – At least one in seven children in sub-Saharan Africa experiences significant psychological difficulties. As the world celebrates World Mental Health Day, UNICEF and WHO are highlighting the need to increase investment and access to mental health prevention and intervention services on the continent.

Children and adolescents are always at risk of developing mental health problems, especially vulnerable children facing poverty, discrimination and violence. Lack of access to basic social, health and education services, combined with vast structural inequalities, are all known to exacerbate the risks of mental illness.

The effects of climate change, compounded by high rates of HIV infection, teenage pregnancies and humanitarian emergencies, also pose continuing threats to the mental well-being of children and adolescents in Africa. Research shows that 50 percent of mental health problems start at age 14 and 75 percent in their mid-twenties.

“There is an urgent need to tackle the mental health of children and adolescents in Africa. Over the years, millions of young people have been exposed to challenges that most adults would find very difficult to overcome, often having to deal with the psychological impacts on their own. Our systems are still failing them, ”said Mohamed M. Fall, UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.

In order to respond to this growing crisis, UNICEF and WHO have embarked on a joint 10-year program on mental health and psychosocial well-being and the development of children and adolescents in Africa. Signed in 2020, this decade-long collaborative effort works with local governments to strengthen mental health and psychosocial support systems for children, adolescents and their caregivers. It would also help mainstream mental health into national preparedness efforts and remove any stigma that might accompany mental health issues.

Investment in mental health remains extremely low in Africa, with public spending below one US dollar per capita. We simply cannot afford to let millions of children in need of care go unaided, ”said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “It’s time to make a difference and ensure that children grow up to adulthood without the potentially devastating and lifelong effects of unresolved mental health issues. “

COVID-19 has further shone the spotlight on global inequalities, including mental health care. The well-documented statistics regarding vaccine availability in Africa in relation to high-income settings are a stark reminder.

Children in Africa have been exposed to even greater threats with the closure of schools, increased exposure to armed conflict and the lack of opportunities to play and socialize with their peers. Long-term closures have reportedly increased early marriages, teenage pregnancies, and sexual and domestic violence against children – especially girls.

Despite this high burden, the availability and quality of mental health services for children and adolescents in Africa is sorely lacking. Even in countries where there are clinical psychologists and psychiatrists specializing in children and adolescents, there is on average only 1 in 4 million inhabitants, with health and social service professionals qualified in mental health often concentrated. in large cities, inaccessible to most of the population at risk.

Preventive measures remain essential, including the promotion of healthy lifestyles, including exercise and good nutrition, and protection against harmful practices and violence, including strengthening communication and conflict resolution skills.

Updated and costed child and adolescent mental health policies do not exist in many African countries. Out of 39 countries that responded to ATLAS on Mental Health 2019, 11 countries reported having stand-alone child and adolescent mental health policies and / or strategies. Nine of the 39 responding countries reported having inpatient services for children and adolescents, while 12 reported having outpatient services for children and adolescents. Only 5 of the 39 responding countries had community mental health services for children and adolescents

The most recent data indicates that, on average, African ministries of health allocate around 90 US cents per capita for mental health, up from 10 US cents compared to the 2016 report. This is often attributed to large psychiatric institutions, in large cities, with only about 15 percent of them reaching primary and community health levels.

“COVID and response measures have created an environment of uncertainty, isolation and anxiety. The number of children targeted for mental health and psychosocial support in West and Central Africa since the pre-Covid period has almost doubled (87%), from just under 1.1 million in 2019 to nearly 2 million in 2021. Unfortunately, these estimates are probably only part of the real need. Long-term investments in child and adolescent mental health care in Africa are needed to transform recent donor support into sustainable services, ”said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for Africa. West and Central.

“We urge Member States and regional bodies to prioritize and commit to investing more in child and youth mental health across Africa. It is an essential part of our care for children, ”she added.

Investing in children’s health and mental health in Africa now will literally pay off in the future. Latest UNICEF State of the World’s Children Report Finds School-Based Interventions for Anxiety, Depression and Suicide Provide $ 21.5 to $ 1 Return on Investment Over 80 Years . The biggest results, according to the report, were in lower-middle-income countries, with a return of $ 88.7 on every dollar invested.


UNICEF works in some of the world’s most difficult places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. In 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for all. UNICEF’s Eastern and Southern Africa Region covers… countries while the West Africa Region covers… countries. For more information on UNICEF and its work for children, visit

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The World Health Organization is helping to build a better future for people all over the world. Good health lays the foundation for vibrant and productive communities, stronger economies, safer nations and a better world. As the primary health authority within the United Nations system, our work touches the lives of people around the world every day. In Africa, WHO serves 47 Member States and works with development partners to improve the health and well-being of all people living here. The WHO Regional Office for Africa is located in Brazzaville, Congo. Learn more at and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

For more information please contact:

UNICEF East and Southern Africa:

Malene Kamp Jensen, Regional Communications Manager,

[email protected] Phone + 254- (0) 797048529

UNICEF West and Central Africa:

Sandra Bisin, Regional Communications Manager,

[email protected] Phone +221 77 819 2300

WHO Regional Office for Africa:

Collins Boakye-Agyemang, communications officer,

[email protected] Telephone: +242 06 520 65 65


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